Lesbian and Bisexual Teens Sure Did Have A Lot Of Sex, Study Shows

Yesterday, The Independent promised its readers an interesting slice of information with the headline “why lesbian teenagers still have sex with men.” Unfortunately, they failed to truly dive in to this soup of information and pull from it a concrete analysis that satisfied our knowledge-hungry guts and hearts.

However, The Independent did relay some key findings from a recent article in The Journal of Adolescent Health about “sexual behaviors and partner characteristics by sexual identity amongst adolescent girls.” Using data garnered from 3,000 young maidens between 2010-2011 via a Harris Poll Online Opt-In Panel and “through national outreach by GLSEN,” researchers found that “lesbian teenagers have sex younger, have more partners and engage in riskier practices than bi or heterosexual girls.” Welp. Oh also, “one in five sexually active lesbian teenagers in the United States also reported recently having sex with a man.” 

First things first: the analysis in the Adolescent Health Journal Magazine only used data from cisgender girls and only three people said they’d ever had sex with a transgender person (apparently they decided “transgender” — just “transgender,” not “transgender man” or “transgender woman” — was its very own gender, because WHY ANYTHING), so looking at this data we are mostly looking at girls with vaginas and boys with penises. This is relevant for when we talk about safe sex later and types of sex later because different barriers are used for different body parts!

The researchers also separated queer and questioning teens into their own category — pretty useless for our analysis, as “queer” and “questioning” are very different things (the researchers also noted this shortcoming — honestly the researchers who wrote this report seem really cool and aware of stuff, it was really comforting to read), so we’re not gonna go into those responses. But it’s worth noting, because it’s possible some of these numbers could reflect the fact that many teens only felt confident firmly identifying as lesbian or bisexual rather than queer or questioning because they’d already engaged in sexual activity with both genders. A correlation/causation issue could be at the root of a lot of these numbers — as researchers themselves note, “Sexual minority adolescents may feel internal motivation to confirm the validity of their same-sex identities by engaging in heterosexual activity.” Many might also feel they need to engage in homosexual activity too.

Secondly, they found that “Lesbian teens reportedly lose their virginity at the average age of 13 years 9 months, which is significantly younger than bisexual (15 years 1 month) and heterosexual (15 years 6 months) girls.”

My first thought upon reading this factoid was: “that’s bananas!” I only know a handful of lesbians who had consensual sex for the first time at or before the age of 13, and I probably know every lesbian on earth and the ones I do know have definitely told me their entire sexual histories.

These numbers aren’t consistent with most research on the topic, which seems to have decided that that the average American female loses her virginity at the age of 17, and boys at 16. However, this was a survey of teenagers, not of adults, and teenagers who elected to take a survey about sex at that. The researchers did indicate that “underlying factors related to self-selection in the online panel may have affected the sample’s generalizability.” Maybe GLSEN’s outreach attracted more sexually active teens than the Harris Poll’s did.

But also, we have to look at these virginity statistics in context — you can’t actually compare them to recognized averages at all. Virginity statistics usually turn out higher than they did here because they are surveys of adults, not teenagers. When you ask a bunch of 30-year-olds when they lost their virginity, late bloomers in the group will up the average age overall. That couldn’t happen here.

That being said, lesbian and bisexual and queer women having sex earlier than straight women is somewhat inconsistent with what our own sex survey found. Apparently, one-third of American teenagers have had sex by the age of 16, but 43% of the 13,000 queer women-identified humans who took our sex survey had had sex by the age of 16. However, only 21% of the lesbian-identified women who took our survey reported having had sex by the age of 16. Considering that this data of teenagers is from 2010 and ours of primarily twentysomethings is from 2015, we are looking at the same generation.

The researchers also found that “one in five sexually active lesbian teenagers in the United States also reported recently having sex with a man.”  More specifically, 40 lesbians (22.3%) said their most recent sex partner was a man, and 141 (77.6%) said their most recent sex partner was a woman. 25 had engaged in penile-vaginal sex during that most recent sexual encounter. HOLD THE PHONE. No really, it’s not that surprising. The Adolescent Journal of Fun Facts had some theories and they’re very similar to our own personal unscientific theories. This is what their theories are:

  1. (as aforementioned) “Sexual minority adolescents may feel internal motivation to confirm the validity of their same-sex identities by engaging in heterosexual activity.”
  2. “They may also or alternatively experience social pressure to adhere to the heterosexual script, to “prove” their heterosexuality, or to hide their same-sex attractions from those around them.”
  3. “Both lesbian and bisexual girls may experience or recognize their sexual attractions earlier than heterosexual girls do, in which case, sexual desire might be another explanation.”

Cultural and social pressure is a huge deal, and this is apparent when you look at the results of our sex survey. If you look at lesbians who report having had sex with a man at the age of 18 or younger, there’s a clear breakdown by age: 31% of under-20s, 42% of twenty-to-thirtysomethings and 56% of those 40 or older. Compulsory heterosexuality: it’s a thing! It used to be even more of a thing!

Also, we’d like to add two more theories to the mix: firstly, it might be a Correlation/Causation issue. Girls who identify as lesbians might be more confident doing so because they’ve already had a boyfriend or had sex with a boy and realized it was not for them. (Although lots of lesbians have boyfriends and sex with boys for a long time before realizing that they are a lesbian, and lots of lesbians don’t make out with anybody at all before realizing that they are a lesbian. Everybody is different!) The “most recent sexual partner” thing makes it slightly trickier, but not really — it’s not always that easy to find another girl to have sex with in high school!

Secondly, it’s possible they had sex with boys earlier than straight girls because they did not give a single fuck. They didn’t care if they were in love, or if it was special, or if he would call the next day. I call it “The Santana Effect.” Part of what I related to in Santana’s coming out speech on Glee (I know, I know) was that nobody expected it from Santana, ’cause she’d had sex with so many boys! How could the most promiscuous girl in school turn out to not like boys at all? I’ll tell you how: because she did not give a single fuck! 

Also, lesbians are women, and this is America, and everybody is obsessed with man-woman sex, it actually isn’t remotely weird that one in five sexually active women — even women who happen to be lesbians! — have found themselves recently engaged in this very popular activity. So TAKE THAT, sensationalized headline from The Independent!

We also have to look at who’s engaged in sexual activity, period. 17.4% of lesbians have had penile-vaginal sex, compared to 16.7% of straight women and 36.3% of bisexuals. So it’s still a small group overall. (Again; study was limited to cisgender teens so we can assume in most cases, penile-vaginal sex was cis boy/cis girl sex.) Lesbians obviously dominate the finger-banging game, though: 52.3% of lesbian teens have had vaginal/anal sex with a sex toy or a finger, compared to 48.6% of bisexuals and 14.5% of straight girls. 66% of lesbians, 74% of bisexuals and 48% of straight girls have ever kissed anybody.

(If you wanna think about this even more, check out this study discussed in Hip Mama ‘Zine, which found lesbians were more likely to be teen moms than straight girls.)

Furthermore, they found that “lesbian and bisexual adolescents also have considerably more sexual partners than straight girls” and that “lesbians were much riskier about safe sex than their peers, with less than a third saying they had discussed using condoms or dental dams with their most recent sexual partner.”

Lifetime sexual partners came out to a 4.5 average for lesbians, 3.4 for bisexuals, and 2.6 for straight girls. I do wonder if it’s just that straight teens are more likely to have had sex in the context of a long-term relationship, due to a scarcity of queer women in general, discrimination from both genders against bisexual women, and the pressure for straight women to adhere to certain social norms about sexual behavior and promiscuity that queer teens aren’t as susceptible to. Real talk: there’s way more sexist ridiculous stigma against a girl who’s had sex with a lot of boys than a girl who’s had sex with a lot of girls.

Only 31.7% of the lesbians who had oral, penile-vaginal or penile-anal sex discussed barriers before having sex, compared to 62% of bisexual girls and 73% of straight girls. Some of that can be explained by cis lesbians not using protection while having oral sex with other cis lesbians, but they also isolated lesbians who’d had penile-vaginal or penile-anal sex, and still found 66% reporting that they used condoms half the time or less, compared to 35% of bisexuals and 28% of straight girls. YIKES.

Now lets get dark for a second, because we must, when we are talking about queers. We are more likely to be depressed, we are more likely to be homeless, we are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors that lead to unsafe sex or lots of sex at a young age, like drug use and alcohol. (There’s also nothing inherently troubling about having lots of sexual partners, but that’s another conversation for another day.) We’re also just more likely to live risky, secretive lives that might involve behavior deemed unacceptable by those who live more openly. Anecdotally, lesbian and bisexual teenagers seem particularly prone to wanton behavior in general as well as some unsettling aimlessness. Being queer can involve a lot of sneaking around and a lot of keeping things to yourself and a lot of exploration. We might be less likely to be honest with our parents about where we’re going and who we’re sleeping with and more likely to avoid channels of communication with our family or friends that might lead to discussion about sexuality and responsible sexual behavior.

They also point out that “lack of access to LGB-relevant resources and services could explain these elevated risk behaviors.” When it comes to safer sex, we don’t get any information about how two people with vaginas should practice safer sex. Lesbians are terrible at safer sex! On our survey, only 4.7% of lesbian-identified women had used dental dams and only 7.4% had used latex or nitrile gloves. Only 3.6% said they use protection every time they have sex. Teenagers in general also tend to assume they’re too young to have partners who’ve already acquired STIs and often those engaged in penis-vagina sex are only using protection ’cause they’re worried about pregnancy. Cis girls having sex with cis girls are not worried about pregnancy. So, there’s that.

In conclusion, I lost my virginity to a 100% openly gay guy when I was 16, and now I’m super gay, so, you know… Life is quite a journey! Also, we’d just seen Wild Things.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2695 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Haven’t read the article yet (though I’m excited about it!), but I can’t remember who to email about ads – I’m getting Marco Rubio ads on this piece and felt like someone should know that?

    • ew.

      But on the bright side, that is Rubio campaign money presumably wasted?

      I haven’t been getting any ads at all lately, even with adblock off, maybe because my computer was afraid to show me a Rubio ad?

        • yeah our ad feed has been broken for a few months and nobody can tell us how to fix it! so a lot of people have been getting an ad-free autostraddle for a few months. it’s neat!

          but you can email alex about the marco rubio ad! although i have no problem taking his money.

  2. When I saw the title of that Independent article I groaned. Totally sensational with the intention of hoping to draw in male readers. See, guys, you still have a chance.

    This survey was all teenage girls right? It’s quite possible that these girls’ most recent sex was with a male for all the reasons you listed as well as the fact many girls also sometimes misidentify their sexual orientation at that age. They are young. They are still figuring their shit out. And their are still many grown women who don’t even want to use labels like Bisexual because of the stereotypes attached to it.

    Also, I definitely was not having sex at 13. Not consensually anyway but that’s a story for another day. It’s also a generational thing, I suspect. Kids are having sex younger and younger these days but society also sexualizes teenage girls and treats them like grown women. I can’t tell you the amount of males I see frothing at the mouth on social media over 15/16 year old girls as they “count down the days” to their 18th birthdays. Some don’t even wait that long. *cough* Tyga *cough*

  3. The pregnancy thing has got to be a huge factor. I mean, it’s hard to get birth control as a teenager b/c parents, and teenagers aren’t always the most responsible people, while birth control requires a good deal of responsibility. And, ya know, sex ed sucks. So, the built in free birth control is a fun bonus.
    I said this today: I’d probably be celibate if I had sex with guys. I have way more sex because I know I don’t have to worry about any resulting babies.
    I do wonder if the difference is as wide between gay men and straight men. Like, worrying about getting someone pregnant is not at all the same as worrying about getting pregnant. So that would be interesting.

  4. I was 18 in 2010 and just the idea that I would be able to contribute to this survey is ridiculous. Id have been a straight virgin, upping the age of straight girls virginity when actually i was just a super gay girl not quite ready to shout from the rooftops yet.

  5. Wild Things, huh? I lost my virginity after my date and I saw Harry Potter (I was 14, almost 15). Maybe you could include that sort of question in a future survey (unless you had it in the previous one) Expand it to include TV shows, even. 🙂

  6. Man, I didn’t have sex with ANYBODY until I was 18, and even then, it was with a guy. I didn’t figure out I was gay until two years after that. I’m so fucking jealous of all these teenagers figuring their shit out and getting to actually DO something about it when they’re only 13 or 14. Hell, even if I had figured my shit out at 13, I knew exactly ONE other lesbian before I started university.

  7. Does accessibility to dental damns have any play in the low usage? Like I’ve been to adult stores and they didn’t have any dental damns, one of them just suggest using a glove. Then at ladies night at a gay bar, they were handing out condoms. I asked no dental damns, cause I don’t see many men or amab trans people besides myself. The woman’s reply was well you can use it on a toy. This in SoCal, so I can only imagine what it might be like, in say Dallas, or Atlanta.

  8. I was thinking a lot about all this information and I think one of the key elements is sex ed, because even if your school district doesn’t go the “abstinence is the only way”, sex ed is totally heteronormative and ignores LGBT sexuality, so if you are a teenage girl and a part of who you are is absolutely disregarded I don’t have troubles imagining that this could happen:

    “They may also or alternatively experience social pressure to adhere to the heterosexual script, to “prove” their heterosexuality, or to hide their same-sex attractions from those around them.”

  9. I’m bi (and old) and I didn’t start having sex until I was 19 (although 19 yo me would have denied it since I didn’t count oral sex as sex back the ).

    Tbh, adult me thinks I lost 5 different kinds of virginity to 4 different people between the ages of 19 and 22 – but at the time I only counted the last one (piv sex) as real sex.

  10. Okay what’s with an article taking statistics and then inferring causation from it? Like, they found out that this percentage of lesbian teens have engaged in straight sex, but then why not ask those same girls why? Why speculate? Can’t the people who did the study also collect answers on motivation, or is that not gonna lead to an adequately-sensationalist title?

    It just seems like bad science. Especially when the title misleads and tells you it will explain to you exactly why lesbians sleep with men. And then of course the people who click on the title will not care about if it’s a good study; they’ll want to know why and use that info to confirm their own biases. Yeesh.

    That being said: Autostraddle’s journalism is excellent. Thanks Riese for covering this.

  11. I may have missed it, but did they define sex anywhere in this article? Because I know the generally agreed upon autostraddle definition of sex is not the standard heterosexual definition of sex. Most straight girls would probably not count fingers or mouths as sufficient to qualify as losing their virginity.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.